Beautiful singing overshadows dark plot 

Il Trovatore
Indianapolis Opera
Clowes Memorial Hall
Oct. 3 and 5

Jealousy, hatred, vengeance, murder, mayhem and bloodlust were given full sway at last weekend's Indianapolis Opera production of Verdi's darkest melodrama, Il Trovatore (The Troubadour). The centerpiece of an operatic trilogy that made Giuseppe Verdi an international figure in his so-called middle period, Trovatore (1853) is framed by Rigoletto (1851) and La Traviata (1853). Both the latter two have had recent IO productions, ones which — in better economic times — amply filled Clowes Hall. Yet, despite our present financial downturn, the hall was fairly well populated (Friday) for an IO production that debuted all new featured singers. And their collective vocal prowess was clearly above IO’s average.

The setting for this “opera noir” is 15th century Spain, with the principals comprising a portion of Spanish nobility. Manrico is the troubadour (a composer and singer of folk songs) and an army officer. Leonora, a noble lady, is the love of his life; she is also strongly sought after by Count di Luna. Azucena, supposedly Manrico’s gypsy mother, has the fourth dominant role in this plot, its libretto written by Salvatore Cammarano.

Soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams showed her startling talent in the role of the ill-fated Leonora. Her voice was beautifully controlled and evenly centered. Though she had lots of singing, she also was allowed much time off the stage to rest her voice, as though it needed it — Azucena took over during much of Act 2.

Tenor Arnold Rawls also made his IO debut impressively as Manrico, his vocal delivery on a par with Williams. In fact, the lovers made for one of the best singing couples IO has recently engaged. However, mezzo Laura Brioli may have stolen the evening with her many splendored portrayal of Azucena. A native Italian and making her U.S. debut here, Brioli sang with an extremely wide vibrato, a pitch wobble that, in most cases, I would find cloying and smarmy. With Brioli, however, this trait was strongly mitigated by her absolutely consistent vocal control, her center pitch remaining spot on. In any case, her Act 2 dialogue/duet with Manrico was — along with Leonora and Manrico’s in Act 4 — the vocal high point of the production.

Less impressive were Darren K. Stokes as Ferrando and Todd Thomas as the jealous count, both with voices that seemed occasionally uneven. Soprano Evelyn Johnson, singing Inez, Leonora's confidante, displayed good vocalism, almost on a par with Williams.

Stage director Joseph Baschetta had his hands full managing the large assemblage of IO choristers appearing on stage often throughout the production. Which perhaps explains their occasional difficulty in staying with the orchestra — or with each other. A study in simulated stone dominated David Gano’s impressive sets. A stone floor, stone stairs — angled one way in one scene, the opposite in another — stone towers and stone walls, all darkish gray, created an apropos atmosphere for this macabre story line.

IO artistic director James Caraher, now in his 28th season with the company, led the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra with finesse, continuing to show a comfortable skill as an experienced pit conductor. He opened Act 2 with a most rousing Anvil Chorus, one of Verdi’s most famous operatic excerpts. Now if we could just have better followed Trovatore's complex, convoluted plot throughout its four acts, with its ending twist that might recall cheap Hollywood thriller material ...

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